Thursday, July 04, 2013

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key...

There’s plenty of stuff going on in The Plot Against Roger Rider. So perhaps the best way to summarise the story is to use this blog’s time-honoured method of stealing someone else’s words. In this case, you can get a feel for the story’s direction from the opening paragraph alone:

“You could say that the plot against Geoffrey Paradine started at the same time as the plot against Roger Rider. That would not be wrong, although it might be a little misleading. And you could start the story of both plots at several different points. The moment when Henry Princeton stepped off the plane at Heathrow, for instance. Or the day when John Burlington Summers told his landlady in Sydney that he was going to pursue his researches into the Russian royal family elsewhere, and left for Spain. One of the plots might be said to have started when Sheila Rider saw her father coming out of a teashop with a woman. Or you could say that the whole thing began when Amanda Rider took Geoffrey Paradine to bed. But upon the whole the best starting point is the warm July day when Roger Rider went to consult a private detective.”

Several plots, subplots, counterplots, and bizarre events later, we finally learn who was plotting against whom and what exactly the plot against Roger Rider was. But it’s quite a journey and it takes several twists and turns, and more than once it turns out that what you thought was going on was something else altogether. This is a tough story to sum up, complex and full of interesting twists and turns. And what makes it all the more unusual is that the author of this novel was none other than Julian Symons.

In 1972, Julian Symons published the first edition of Bloody Murder. It’s still the best book of its kind, a complete overview of the mystery genre from its early days to (what was at the time) the present. But it was (and remains) a hugely controversial book, as it essentially came to the conclusion that the detective story was some sort of freak of nature that popped up between the world wars but which was long dead now, thank God for that, because it was awful, and isn’t this new “crime fiction” stuff so much better and shouldn’t mysteries have lots more to do with sex? Symons’ comments on detective fiction were often questionable, such as when he relegated Henry Wade to the category of the “Humdrums” (No, I’m not getting over that any time soon) or when he did the same to Gladys Mitchell. So it’s very odd that a mere year after extolling the virtues of the crime novel, Symons went and wrote The Plot Against Roger Rider, published in 1973. For this is very much a traditional detective story…

I’d never read any of Julian Symons’ fiction before, so I was coming in with an open mind and promised to keep the sarcastic jokes to a minimum. And I found myself very much enjoying the novel. However, there is one thing that bothered me enormously about the book, and that is Symons’ downright obsession with sex. Sex drives everything in this novel. About half the conversations are about sex, and Symons’ “avant-garde” dialogue instantly dates him to an almost laughable degree. He especially throws around the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, doing it so often and so unnaturally that I began to wonder whether he’d only just discovered these words.

Particularly annoying is a female character who spends every damn second of her "screen time" fantasizing about her Perfect Man, almost never giving a thought to the mysterious events going on around her. Is her uncle dead or alive or kidnapped or running away with his company’s funds? She doesn’t care, she has to wonder whether The Natural Man would act like this young man seated across from her and wonder why she has butterflies in her stomach and flutter her eyes at him and generally act like an idiot. If Symons was capable of creating such bad characters as this, then I honestly feel he had no right to complain that Freeman Wills Crofts was unable to create realistic characters and emotions.

All the sexual stupidities aside, however, I did genuinely enjoy this book. It’s a real puzzler and readers who enjoy puzzles will enjoy piecing this one together. For all of Symons’ praise for “crime fiction” a year before, this is an extremely artificial book in which the puzzle is everything. Luckily it’s a good puzzle. That being said, I solved it quite easily by relying on narrative clichés. I won’t say which one cracked the case for me, but even though I knew much of the solution I didn’t quite get all of it.

The Plot Against Roger Rider should be read by detective story fans… if for no other reason, at least as an antidote to Bloody Murder. Symons, known for his “crime fiction”, turns out to have some skill at constructing a pure puzzle, and the mere fact that the book exists seems to prove that there’s something to these “silly” detective stories Symons put down. I like to think that somewhere in Symons’ heart, there was some joy when coming across a good puzzle plot. And try as he might to deny it in Bloody Murder, the fact that his very next book was a pure puzzle plot seems to prove that there was something in the form that fascinated him. Either way, I think there’s enough fun in this book to placate even the most die-hard anti-Symons crusader.

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting review. I definitely want to try some Julian Symons mysteries. I don't have this one but I will pick it up if I see it.

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  2. Glad you liked this one Patrick - it's probably the most craftily constructed of his books (Edmund crispin thought so). OK, as the designated Symons defender, I feel it is incumbent upon me to remind readers that Symons loved Golden Age books too. You make it sound as though he had no time for Christie, Queen and Carr and he praises them very highly in Bloody Murder - fair's far ...

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  3. My impression of Symons' attitude to Golden Age books is much more positive than the way a lot of people write about him. He wasn't writing a history of pure puzzle fair play detective stories; and they really are only a small subset of crime fiction. From what I've read of his own novels, he used various approaches (an Eric Ambler style spy story, several film noir style intrigues), but he came back to fair play detective stories throughout his career. Bland Beginning (1949) is one I remember as unusually classical, but A Three-Pipe Problem (1975), while trying to do something else at the same time, is clearly in the traditional detective story mode.

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